KHODORKOVSKY AND PUTIN: POLARIZATION OF THE POLITICAL FIELD CONTINUES

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The YUKOS affair remains the dominant issue in Russia’s domestic politics and foreign affairs, and thus the main topic in the national press. As Kommersant-Vlast magazine observes, in becoming the unwilling hero of the past two weeks, Mikhail Khodorkovsky has helped Russia’s political parties determine their relations with business and government.

Predictably enough, the United Russia party has given its full support to the actions of the authorities. So have the People’s Party, the Russia’s Renaissance and Party of Life bloc, and – of course – the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR).

Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (URF) have criticized the actions of the Prosecutor General’s Office, and this synchronicity in their actions has revived long-lost hopes of forming a united democratic front for elections.

According to Kommersant-Vlast, the Communist Party (CPRF) faced the greatest difficulties of all: “Their party conscience demanded that they should support ‘de-kulakizing’ the oligarchs, but their party wallet was resolutely opposed.” Eventually, CPRF leader Gennadi Zyuganov succeeded in finding a “balanced formula.”

Zyuganov declared that the YUKOS events should be viewed not as “restoring property rights over natural resources to the people”, but as an attempt by the authorities “to distract the people from problems and gain a few extra percentage points of the vote in the elections.”

The URF, as mentioned above, has taken the YUKOS affair seriously. The papers have published an open letter from Anatoly Chubais to Grigori Yavlinsky, with a proposal to reconsider an alliance for the sake of fighting the regime.

Chubais’s letter is cited in Novaya Gazeta: “It is no secret that personal relations between you and myself are an obstacle to closer links and perhaps unification between the Yabloko and URF parties. In my view, we cannot permit ourselves the luxury of conflict in those relations now.”

According to Chubais, the major threat that could make the URF and Yabloko forget their previous differences is the catastrophe of “Russia returning to dictatorship.” In previous (unsuccessful) attempts to unite, the leaders of the democratic parties have been guided by “simple common sense”, but now, understanding that “only together can we prevent the ruinous prospect of political power being privatized by the bureaucracy, which is not accountable to society”, it is necessary to see the matter through.

Support for the initiative was expressed by “representatives of the creative intelligentsia” – writers Vladimir Voinovich, Fazil Iskander, and Boris Akunin; academicians Alexander Yakovlev and Yuri Ryzhov; director Alexander Zeldovich, and others. These signatories emphasized the following in their address to the democrats: “Arguing over details is a genre for prosperous times. In difficult times it is fatal. Having a common enemy draws people closer. Faced with a common enemy, yesterday’s opponents become allies. There is only one requirement for this: the will to unite, decisively setting aside personal ambitions.” (Cited in Novaya Gazeta.)

However, Grigori Yavlinsky was rather reserved in his response to Chubais’s proposal. He confirmed that joint actions with the URF are common practice for Yabloko: “That is how it has been in the past, and that is how it will continue to be.” Yavlinsky’s press secretary, Yevgenia Dillendorf, delivered Yabloko’s response to Chubais to the media. It says that unification between the parties is possible, in principle, but only under extraordinary circumstances: for example, “if Russia is attacked by an external enemy” or “if widespread fraud is observed during the elections.”

Under any other circumstances, there would be no point in merging, according to Yabloko. “If we were a single party now, we would be splitting over YUKOS.” This is because Yabloko believes the underlying cause of the current situation lies in how privatization was carried out in the 1990s. “But the URF will never admit that. This was their conscious position, and Chubais has admitted it: yes, he said, we created robber capitalism.”

In general, according to Yabloko, the URF is exploiting the idea of unification only because it thinks this will be popular with voters. But Yabloko takes the opposite view: “We are different parties, and 95% of Yabloko voters will never vote for Chubais and Kokh under any circumstances – instead, they would spit on us and go vote against all candidates.”

Novaya Gazeta published Yabloko’s response exactly a week after Chubais’s appeal.

Meanwhile, the Gazeta newspaper gathered some political analysts and asked them to comment on unification prospects for Yabloko and the URF.

Dmitri Orlov of the Political Techniques Center told Gazeta that in his view, “this is purely a PR move by the URF.”

Orlov’s direct superior, Political Techniques Center director Igor Bunin, is likewise skeptical about the possibility of the two parties uniting. In his view, the problem does not lie in the ideological differences between their leaders (given the rapidly-developing YUKOS events, the differences can be overcome), but in the political ambitions of the Yabloko leader. Bunin says it these ambitions that make it impossible for Yavlinsky to “move from his own separate party into a ‘communal’ party.”

However, Andrei Ryabov from the Carnegie Center in Moscow says the URF’s unification efforts could have some positive results – if not for the parliamentary elections, then for the presidential campaign: “This could include nominating a single democratic candidate.”

In Novaya Gazeta, well-known politician and Duma member Vladimir Ryzhkov noted reprovingly: “Can dislike for one person be a reason for refusing an alliance?” Such an explanation is “childish and laughable”, according to Ryzhkov. “Such talk cannot be taken seriously. If Yabloko is a responsible party, and its leaders are responsible politicians, they cannot take such a frivolous view of the situation.” In general, “they should unite before it is too late”, says Ryzkhov.

“The war between the URF and Yabloko is one of the most distasteful details in the election campaign landscape,” says Yulia Latynina, political observer for Yezhenedelnyi Zhurnal. In Latynina’s view, this state of war is permanent largely because the Kremlin is quite satisfied to have things that way; it believes in the principle of “divide and rule.” In accordance with this principle, a political counterweight has been created for every party: “For the Communists there is the Motherland bloc, for the URF there is Yabloko, and even for United Russia there is the People’s Party.”

But Latynina emphasizes that the main source of differences between the democrats is undoubtedly the fact that Yabloko is funded by Khodorkovsky, while the URF is tied to Anatoly Chubais.

The current phase of the war involves sorting out which one of them – the “chief privatizer” or the oil oligarch – will become the single candidate representing the democratic forces in the presidential election.

Thus, the immediate tactical objective – getting as many votes as possible in the parliamentary elections – is much less important than the strategic objective: “Destroying the intra-species rival, to ensure that it doesn’t get into the Duma at all, and the divided fragments of its army join up with the main forces of the leader.”

It’s a sorry situation, says Latynina: “After all, the question is not who will consolidate democracy around them in 2008; the question is whether there will be anything left to consolidate by then.”

According to Latynina, it is already clear that a merger between the URF and Yabloko will be entirely insufficient for the purpose of countering authoritarian trends in the regime. That would require unification of all the political elites – including the oligarchs, “half of whom are waiting to see if any crumbs from the table of the Prosecutor General’s Office might fall their way” (like the Talakan oil deposit, for example, taken away from YUKOS and transferred to Surgutneftegaz), while the other half “believes that keeping their heads down will ensure their survival.”

“Russia is full of fear.” That is the opening of an article in “The Financial Times” by Vladimir Gusinsky, one of the oligarchs “equidistanced” earlier. (The article is reprinted in Vedomosti.) Business leaders and politicians fear Putin because they understand that “after a show trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, heads will roll.”

In his view, liberal parties in Russia today are a like a smokescreen concealing the true face of the regime. Moreover, says Gusinsky, Chubais and other right-wing leaders are directly responsible for the rise of Putin’s authoritarianism: “In helping to realize their dream of a Russian version of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, they neglected the destruction of the free media and did not resist Putin’s attack on the constitution.” Now that the head of YUKOS is under arrest and the oil sector faces the threat of nationalization, these people “would like to rewind history, but they are afraid to do anything.”

The Russian elite will have to overcome its fears, says Gusinsky, or an authoritarian regime will be entrenched for many years to come. Right-wing party leaders must come to a decision and nominate “a fearless candidate” who is capable of telling the whole truth about the regime’s actions.

Gusinsky says: “Even if they do not succeed, they will have acquired real – rather than decorative – political power, and put an obstacle in the way of dictatorship.”

At any rate, says the former media magnate, if no suitable candidate can be found, at least they could nominate Khodorkovsky: “He has already shown he is not afraid of Putin and has challenged him directly. This is why he poses such a danger to the president.”

In the Moskovskie Novosti weekly, chief editor Yevgeny Kiselev took a similar tone in commenting on the response of Anatoly Chubais in an interview with Marianna Maksimovskaya on REN TV. “Who will be next after Khodorkovsky?” asked Maksimovskaya. Chubais answered: “I will make every effort to ensure that no one will be next.”

But what can Chubais do, really? That is the question Kiselev asks. Perhaps Chubais will go to the president and ask permission to fight the security and law enforcement agencies, just as he once asked permission to save the independent TVS television channel. Permission was not granted, and the channel went out of business.

Kiselev says that the URF has spent four years keeping silent and being cautious – only criticizing the president “over isolated issues”, at best. Isn’t it time the liberals in the Kremlin took a stronger stand, declaring for all to hear that dicatatorship is approaching?

However, thus far all these calls have made no more impression on the general public than the uninvited initiative of Boris Berezovsky a few days earlier: he called on all Russia’s political parties to boycott the elections.

Berezovsky’s idea got a fairly sour reception; it was explained to the London exile that Russia is a democracy, and there can be no question of refusing to take part in elections. Indeed, a fronde is a dangerous thing; especially in Russia, where the regime is always ready to take the fronde at its word. And then they would have to go underground, at best; which is very hard to imagine, of course, for such people of substance as our politicians. At best, they would have to begin all over again in the fight for their own place in the political sun. Please, Mr. Berezovsky, you’re complicating things too much here.

What’s more, a great deal of money has already been invested in election campaigns. According to Gazeta, at the end of October – with still over a month to go until election day – the political parties had virtually emptied their campaign coffers.

The Yabloko party, having 121 million rubles in its electoral fund, had spent 107.3 million rubles, which is likely to be the highest spending of all.

Undoubtedly, says Gazeta, United Russia has the biggest financial reserve – it officially has 148 million rubles. Moreover, United Russia, which has filled the streets of Moscow with its campaign advertising, had managed to spend only 53.7 million rubles on that, which is half the spending of Yabloko.

As always, the Communists were the most frugal: they had spent a ridiculous amount of 27.5 million rubles, with only 1 million rubles left.

However, explains Gazeta, official statistics are not real indicators. Analysts have calculated that the election campaign of all parties will actually cost a total of 29.415 billion rubles, or $980.5 million, whereas by law they are only allowed to spend 575 million rubles in total.

It means the real cost of an election campaign exceeds the formal cost by 5900% and, quite naturally, al payments are transferred through gray and black schemes.

In the opinion of Gazeta, the “unclaimed” $700,000 prosecutors found during search operations related to the case of YUKOS at the Agency for Strategic Communications, which had provided “electoral PR services” to Yabloko, prove that such schemes exist. According to Gazeta, nobody has yet claimed this money.

Meanwhile, says Profil magazine, Yabloko may actually face financial hardships on the eve of the elections. Grigory Yavlinsky said that financing of the party by YUKOS, the chief sponsor of Yabloko, stopped from the moment Khodorkovsky was arrested.

Anyhow, despite the preliminary forecasts, the plot of the upcoming elections proves to be twisted, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta; at least the “inertia scenario” predicted earlier has not eventuated.

Although, on the one hand, the hope that the democrats will rally before the elections is weak, the latest events nevertheless prompt them to “focusing on criticizing their real opponents – the Kremlin and United Russia, without wasting no strength on clarification of their relations,” says Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

In the meantime, as Nezavisimay Gazeta emphasizes, persecution of the oligarchs have made the centrists revise their positions.

Nowadays, it has become unfashionable among the centrists to protect business and, even more so, to invite entrepreneurs to join them. United Russia now has to justify not only the actions of the security and law enforcement agencies, but also the slogans which have mostly been used by the left forces over the past several years.

“In this sense, position of United Russia becomes indistinguishable from the credo of the People’s Party, which is almost coinciding the ideals of the Motherland bloc (led by Glaziev and Rogozin), which, in its turn, adopts the slogans from the CPRF.” According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, only two slogans are available: “for expropriation of expropriators and against expropriation.”

Thus, there have been only two (rather than three: the left – center – the right) party columns before the elections: a numerous army of the left and two moderate detachments of the right.

When, following Boris Yeltsin’s victory in the presidential elections in 1996 Anatoly Chubais had said that the last nail has been driven into the coffin of communism, he was too hasty in drawing this conclusion, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. The same question is on the agenda today – between the left and the right. However, there’s one significant distinction: “The head of state took the part of the right wing then. The current president chooses a leftist script.”

This turn of the wheel of Russia’s history gives more chances to the communists and liberals: their electorate could stir up, feeling a threat to liberal reforms.

In the opinion of the newspaper, the centrists will have the hardest time: their voters have always been for the stability and reservation of the status quo and haven’t wanted any revolutionary changes, which the interior minister and his affiliates appeal for.

Under the current circumstances Nezavisimaya Gazeta isn’t venturing to predict behavior of United Russia supporters, since United Russia members actually have no party life and are unwilling to participate even in the pre-election television debates.

It should be said that United Russia’s refusal from being involved in the debate aroused a tempestuous response both among the politicians and in the media.

URF leader Boris Nemtsov immediately said that for a parliamentary party abstention from the television debating on the eve of the elections would mean “political death.” “United Russia is haughty and weak, it refused from debate with the parties which have millions of proponents,” Nemtsov stressed (cited as transcribed by Gazeta).

As a result, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, five Duma factions of nine seconded the rightists’ proposal on introducing an amendment by which a party which ignores the election debate could be withdrawn from the elections.

However, it is possible to understand United Russia. “Television debating is a powerful weapon for leveling the odds, which are always against the favorite of a campaign,” says Alexander Privalov in Expert magazine.

However, the formula which the Bears have employed (“we regard wasting our time for populist speeches on TV to be unadvisable and dangerous”), Privalov assessed as foolish and tactless: “You don’t want to waste your time for populist speeches, do that with non-populist ones. You can’t do that? Don’t insult those who are at least pretending to prove their ability for that.”

The Bears are now unlikely to get rid of the general certainty that they declined participation in the TV debating “due to prevalence of figures who’d better remain silent in their ranks.”

Moreover, this assumption seems to have a big grain of truth. Anyhow, United Russia leaders brilliantly confirmed this assumption by his regular legislative initiative. Sergei Shoigu proposed that anyone who hasn’t voted in the last three elections should lose their citizenship , while Lyubov Sliska is ready “to impose fines, so far.”

As Shoigu declared, For people who don’t take part in the referendums, elections of president, legislative authorities, don’t care which laws and power we’ll have and how we are to live in the future. If a person doesn’t attend the elections, he doesn’t care a country to live in.” Therefore, in Shoigu’s opinion, the country could be free of its engagement in relation to a similar citizen.

Gazeta has immediately calculated: given that more people always take vote in the presidential elections, it appears that at least one third of the electorate is always ignoring the elections, which suggests that approximately 34 million of Russians could now be naturalized. At the same time, as a rule, youths don’t attend the elections, which means our country may lose mainly young people slightly over 18.

Fortunately, Gazeta notes, the Russian Constitution directly states that voting in elections is a right rather than a obligation.

At the Central Electoral Commission Gazeta was told that from now on, United Russia has no reason to be complaining about low voter turnout, since another party with its traditional Russian habits for “voluntary-compulsory activities” has done its best to repulse its electorate.

However, as distinct from politicians, political consultants, and the media, Russian voters are not likely to need to have their zeal cooled down.

In its latest issue Kommersant-Vlast magazine gives very significant figures about attitudes to the YUKOS affair among Russian citizens. The majority have been indifferent to it.

However, 75% – much higher than voter turnout – proved to be aware of Khodorkovsky’s arrest. On the other hand, this means a quarter of the people haven’t heard anything about Khodorkovsky.

Among those who heard that news, 34% gave positive evaluations about the oligarch’s arrest, 20% – more likely positive, and 28.6% – were neutral. Only 4.4% fully censured the action taken by the Prosecutor General’s Office!

Similar severe results for YUKOS were obtained from answers to the question: “What is the reason for Khodorkovsky’s arrest?” Some 27.6% of respondents said he had personally violated Russian laws; 24% more assume his company had done that; 11% ascribed his persecution to the oligarch’s involvement in politics, 9% said that this is the beginning of a general anti-oligarchic campaign and only 7% of respondents assume this could be the start of a new big redistribution of property.

At the same time, over 50% of respondents faithfully believe that the arrest of Khodorkovsky won’t influence the Russian economy, while 47% say it won’t influence foreign investors.

On the whole, this is another confirmation that Russia, as its politicians like to repeat, is a leftist country and that the holy certainty that “superiors know better” is a hereditary trait for Russian citizens.

Under similar state of public opinion the case of YUKOS and persecution against oligarchs could indeed provide for an electoral result for which the authorities is evidently hoping.

Another question (very painful for the majority of observers) – to which temple is this road leading?

However, we’ll only get a response to it after elections are over, between 2004 and 2008.

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